Down to the Sea in Ships

Down to the Sea in Ships
Down to the Sea in Ships

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Directed by Elmer Clifton
Produced by Elmer Clifton
Written by John L.E. Pell
Starring William Walcott
Marguerite Courtot
Raymond McKee
Clara Bow
Music by Henry F. Gilbert (Uncredited)
Cinematography Paul H. Allen
A.G. Penrod
Distributed by W.W. Hodkinson
Release date(s) First showing September 25, 1922 ('Olympia' Rhode Island). Main release March 4, 1923.
Running time 85 min (9 reels, originally 12)
Country United States
Language Silent
English intertitles

Down to the Sea in Ships is a 1922 American silent film about a 19th century Massachusetts whaling family. Directed by Elmer Clifton, the film stars William Walcott, Marguerite Courtot, and Clara Bow.



Captain William W. Morgan (William Walcott) is a well-respected businessman who owns a fleet of whaling ships in the Quaker town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is very close to his shy, obedient daughter, Patience (Marguerite Courtot), and tells her that she must marry a man who is a whaler and a Quaker, like him. His son and daughter-in-law were lost ten years before while on a whaling expedition; eventually, their baby, his granddaughter Dot (Clara Bow), was found floating near shore on a raft made of branches. He has raised her ever since. Dot is a mischievous, rebellious child, who wants to be a whaler when she grows up, an ambition that is not acceptable for a female among her people.

One day, a childhood friend of Patience's, Allan Dexter (Raymond McKee) arrives in town, recently back from college. He and Patience renew their acquaintance and fall in love. He goes to ask Captain Morgan for permission to marry Patience but Captain Morgan turns him out of the house, informing him that he is not a suitable husband for her because he is neither a Quaker nor a whaler.

Meanwhile, Samuel Siggs (J. Thornton Baston), an effeminate Chinese man masquerading as a white man, connives to steal Captain Morgan's ships to transport African gold. He dresses up as a Quaker and acquires a position of authority in Morgan's business by pretending to be an experienced whaler. After spying Morgan's pretty daughter Patience, he also plans to finagle his way into marrying her. Learning of Dexter's love for her, he has his fellow con artist Jake Finner (Patrick Hartigan), "fearless, lawless and godless", drugs the young man's drink and has him kidnapped, tied up, and placed on the next outgoing whaling vessel, hoping never to see him again. Also on the ship is Dot, who has dressed as a boy and stowed away below deck. Because of their disappearance, it is rumored that Dexter and Dot joined the Oregon Wagon Train and have gone west together.

Miles out to sea, Dexter is untied and immediately put to work. Wanting to prove himself to Morgan, he decides to put all his effort into working long hard hours hoping to win his chance to harpoon a whale, which would make him an accomplished whalesman. Meanwhile Jake Finner, who has killed the captain and taken over the ship, finds Dot, discovers she is a girl and attacks her. Because he has been treating the men on board like slaves, they mutiny against Finner, appointing Dexter as Captain, while Dot's friend Jimmie, the cabin boy, rescues her from Finner's clutches.

After harpooning a whale and learning why he was abducted, Dexter arranges to have the vessel return to port. Meanwhile, Captain Morgan has fallen ill, fears that he is dying, and commands Patience to marry Siggs as his last wish. She reluctantly agrees. Dexter arrives just in time to save Patience from her terrible fate, and the lovers are reunited at the end.

The last scene of the film is a memorable shot of 16 year old Clara Bow frolicking in a brightly lit field of flowers.


Swedish poster (1923)

Directed by Elmer Clifton, the film's title comes from the Bible, Psalms 107, verses 23-24. It contains semi-documentary footage of whalers at work, and was shot on historic locations in New England, most notably in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The film's title cards are notable for having quotes from Moby-Dick and Joseph Conrad.

The authenticity of the whaling scenes are noted in the opening screen credits, which praise the bravery of both A.G. Penrod and Paul H. Allen, the cameramen, "who, in small boats, stood by their cameras at the risk of their lives to photograph the fighting whales."

The Charles W. Morgan was one of the whaling ships used in the film.


The film's premiere was September 25, 1922 at 'Olympia', Providence, Rhode Island and was on general distribution from March 4, 1923.

It was very popular with audiences, playing for 22 weeks straight in New York City. Critics gave it low marks, but several went out of their way to praise Bow's performance [1].


In the 1935 film Captain Blood, The title character imagines his beloved's face among the clouds as he stands on board a ship. This was taken directly from a scene in Down To The Sea In Ships where Dexter imagines Patience's face among the clouds as he stands on board the whaling ship.


The film was remade by Twentieth Century Fox in 1949. The remake was directed by Henry Hathaway, and stars Richard Widmark, Lionel Barrymore and Dean Stockwell.


  1. ^ David Stenn, Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 26

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